Voices in verse

Special to the Los Angeles Times

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Dennis is known for his quiet lyricism, and his latest, "Callings" (Penguin: $18 paper), is similarly contemplative and restrained. Yet beneath their reticent surface, these poems brim with big questions about vocation, regret, identity and other issues, as in "Outdoor Café":

No book or paper, and no expectation

A friend will be joining me later on.

Just the silent acceptance of life

As it flows in the talk around me.

With its constant questioning of what might have been and what's been lost, "Callings" is an apt poetic companion in these uncertain and anxious economic times.

In "Maggot" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: $24), the latest collection from the endlessly inventive Paul Muldoon offers his usual sly puzzles disguised as poems.

"Just as I'm loading up on another low-carb pork rind snack / I spot in my wing-fuselage connection a fatigue crack," he writes in "Ohrwurm" (German for "ear worm").

Various creatures, such as pigs and porcupines, appear throughout this collection, as Muldoon — poetry editor of the New Yorker, Pulitzer-prize winner and a Princeton University professor — treats themes of sex, decay and death with startling, acrobatic wit. Part of the sheer delight in reading this collection is simply noting his rhyme choices: "Calder's/alders," "prized/anathematized," "drum/Elysium," and so on.

More often than not, whimsy trumps meaning, but it isn't such a bad thing to be left shaking your head at what these nimble poems can do.

Muldoon's Northern Irish compatriot, the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, could not be more different in his style or subject matter. As ever, his collection, "Human Chain" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: $24) is grounded in the everyday — "cigarettes on plates, biscuits, cups of tea." His verse contains modest, plainspoken music, rather than the idiosyncratic vernacular of Muldoon.

What's remarkable about Heaney, after nearly 20 books of poems, is the freshness of his vision — wise, contemplative, awestruck by the natural world and never world-weary or cynical.

A new Norton poetry anthology is always an occasion to celebrate. A recent one that honors our nation's diverse range of poets laureate is "The Poets Laureate Anthology" (W.W. Norton: $39.95), edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt with a foreword by Billy Collins and published in conjunction with the Library of Congress.

The collection includes works from masters including Robert Lowell, Maxine Kumin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, and Kay Ryan. This wonderful compilation provides an authoritative record of some of the greatest voices in American poetry over the last 75 years.

Ciuraru is a critic and the editor of poetry anthologies, including, most recently, "Poems About Horses."

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